1912 – Arizona, Prostitution Row, and the Virgin Cocktail
Add all ingredients to a mixing glass with ice
Stir well and strain into a cocktail glass
Garnish with a cherry, naturally
* * *
Today may be Valentine’s Day, but it is also – more significantly – the Arizona Centennial, marking the 100th anniversary of our 48 contiguous united states and, as a by-product, the end of the Old West. After all, when your last “territory” dons statehood, things stop being as fast and loose as they once were. Fortunately for us, we’re talking Arizona, which – state or not – has always seen things its own way.
“Forty-Eighth Star To Be Placed On Flag Of The American Nation On St. Valentine’s Day” read the February 14, 1912 headline in Arizona Journal-Miner. Across the state, canons, dynamite, bells, and, guns of all sizes would toll 48 times in honor of President Taft’s signing of the statehood proclamation and George W. P. Hunt’s assumption of the Governorship of the state. And, while the term “Arizona Territory” may conjure images of the Old West, by 1912, Arizona the state was a relatively civilized place. Contained in the very same issue of the Journal-Miner mentioned above are advertisements for Model Ts, Sealshipt Oysters, Wine Companies, Electricity, Cigars, and Hart Schaffner & Marx suits – all the comforts of a modern life. Of course, that was in the cities. For those looking for it, the rough and wild west of old was still very much alive in mining towns like Jerome.
Lesley and I first stumbled upon Jerome, perched high atop a once-rich copper load about 35 miles northeast of Prescott, many years back. We had been driving for hours through the seemingly alien landscape as thunderstorms both darkened and ignited the sky around us, and when we first laid eyes upon the rising mountain crowned with the dilapidated silhouettes of the apparently long-forgotten ghost town, we couldn’t help shake the feeling that we had somehow stumbled upon the remains of Dracula’s western retreat. The sense of unease was further heightened as we ascended Cleopatra Mountain into the narrow streets of what had been called, in 1903, the “wickedest town in the west”.
It was in the late 1870s that pioneers looking for gold began to take interest in Jerome, having discovered old Native American copper mines in the area. Within twenty years, several mining operations had set up shop, and with mining came men looking to make their fortune. The work was excruciating, but the potential rewards convinced thousands to take the risk. Not far behind hard working men with pockets full of money and little to spend it on, came vice in all its forms – namely gambling, drink, drugs, and prostitution. As early as 1876, brothels were up and running in Jerome. Just as we have come to envision them from countless films, the finest consisted of a saloon downstairs and rooms upstairs for more horizontal refreshments.
Life in Jerome revolved around three eight-hour shifts, which not only meant that traditional concepts of day and night were sent out the window (memoirs of the miners recall how they often forgot even what day it was) but also that, at any given time, one-third of the town was working, one-third sleeping (rooms were rented in eight-hour periods), and one-third enjoying the local entertainment. This meant that businesses were open 24 hours a day to accommodate the miners. In 1900, the town boasted a population of over 2,500, making it the fourth largest city in Arizona. By the 1920s – when the demand for copper shot up during World War I — the population reached 15,000. Thirteen hotels, 21 bars, and 8 brothels speckled the mountainside along with numerous opium dens and traditional creature comforts like a movie theater, bowling alley, and church.
Of course, it’s the brothels that we’re discussing today, not just because it’s Valentine’s Day, but because, of all vices, the world’s oldest profession seemed to particularly thrive in Jerome. Depending upon the amount of money in your pocket or your own particular proclivities, you could indulge in a variety of prostitutes in Jerome. At the lower end of the spectrum were the common streetwalkers of Husband’s Alley, followed by women who worked out of a room or “crib” in the Crib District, and finally, the higher class madam-run brothels.
Today’s drink would not have been out of place at the House of Joy, one of the town’s longer running palaces of ill repute. Founded in 1912 (what a way to celebrate statehood), the House of Joy served its patrons until 1946 – long after prostitution was illegal in the state and after the Great Depression turned the once-thriving Jerome into a literal ghost town. As we are hoping to achieve with all of our Year of the Doctor posts, we want to give you a sense of place and time to go along with a contemporary drink. For a Valentine’s Day post on Old West prostitution, we could find no more fitting libation than the Virgin Cocktail. While we’ll let you figure our your own particular angle on the virgin in this story (is it the john or the prostitute?), we will share that the Virgin comes to us from the Angostura Bitters Complete Mixing Guide of 1908, and it’s a great representation of an early 20th century vermouth drink.
Early vermouth drinks like the Virgin and the Bloodhound often called for a 50/50 split of spirit and vermouth. We’ve fiddled with the recipe here – upping the gin ratio and cutting back the bitters – to make things a little more interesting for modern palates, but if you want to taste the original, it is:
3 dashes Angostura Bitters
2 dashes Raspberry Syrup
0.5 jigger (0.75 oz) Vermouth
0.5 jigger (0.75 oz) Plymouth Gin
Stir with ice and strain, as at top
There’s a middle ground taken by drinks like the Virgin – not too dry but certainly not sweet – which I particularly enjoy. While still martini-like, it is a bit gentler on the palate while retaining its sophisticated profile. If you like serious sipping drinks, then I highly encourage you to give the Virgin a spin. Like the House of Joy, which clearly satisfied its patrons, this drink won’t disappoint.
As stated, following the Depression, Jerome became Arizona’s largest (and highest) ghost town. Things languished until the 1970s, when hippies and artists discovered the town’s remote pleasures. As it did for the miners of old, Jerome offered a sanctuary where they could do as they pleased. Today, the town boasts just over 300 permanent residents and is known both for its arts community and its ghost population — many of which are the specters of long-gone prostitutes. House of Joy still stands — an achievement in a town where buildings are prone to suddenly slide down the mountainside. After many years of housing what some considered one of the nation’s finest restaurants, the space is now a brothel-themed boutique. Even a hundred years on, it seems as if Jerome can’t shake the world’s old profession.
Esoterica: Should you find yourself in modern day Jerome, we highly recommend a beer at the Spirit Room, one of our favorite bars. Should you make the trip, be sure to do so when a band is playing. Should that band be the Cadillac Angels, who are playing this coming weekend (Feb. 18th and 19th), you will be in particular luck.